The UK and US are the top destinations for international students all over the world. They are both famed for having the most prestigious and world-ranking universities such as Cambridge and Harvard. Currently, the US is no.1 with the highest number of international students while the UK sits at no.2. Still, though they share many cultural similarities, their education systems and higher education in particular are remarkably difference. Here, we break down the key differences for you.

Uk vs US Higher Education System Infographic

Cost & Length

Both UK and US universities have a large range of tuition cost from university to university. It depends on the prestige of the institution and whether it’s public or private. However, UK insitutions are more regulated by the government than US institutions. Thus, on average the cost of tuition for UK institutions is lower than US institutions. The cost of living will also range drastically from region to region in both countries. For example in the UK, the cost of living in Newcastle Upon Thyne is 39% cheaper than London with rent being 65% lower.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the UK and US higher education system is the time it takes to complete an undergraduate Bachelor’s degree. It takes one year less in the UK with a total of 3 years. On the other hand, it takes 4 years in the US to complete a Bachelor’s degree. However, the overall time taken to complete a UK Bachelor’s Degree could possibly be equal to the time for a US university for international students.

uk vs us education system


This is because to be accepted into a UK university, students need to complete either A-levels (1-2 years) or a Foundation (1 year) programme. Conversely, most but not all US universities prefer students to take the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT). The SAT is a lot simpler compared to A-levels or Foundation as the material tested is high school level. Students usually study this on their own or take supplementary tuition classes.

For international students who are non-native English speakers, both countries have their respective English Language Test. These tests are required to prove student’s English writing, reading, listening and speaking abilities. US universities prefer TOEFL while UK universities prefer IELTS.

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The UK higher education system is much more focused and specialized than the US. Students are required to have already decided on their intended field of study when they select a programme. Hence, it has more depth in the student’s chosen field.

The US universities on other hand, reflect the individualist spirit of the country by giving students much more choice and freedom. US university students are given two years to choose a major of intended study. In the mean time, students are free to take a range of subjects of their choosing while also required to study subjects outside their major. There is a bigger emphasis on having a larger breadth of knowledge to produce more holistic liberally educated students. They can also elect to have a double major or a minor, with the two chosen fields not being necessarily directly related.

UK vs US education system


UK universities use an honors system from First Class to Third Class while the US utilizes a 4.0 GPA scale with the traditional A to F.

US universities often assess student’s performance through a large combination of methods throughout the semester such as presentations, quizzes, participation, discussion, assignments etc. Amidst that a substantial part of the grade is given to a midterm and final exams. Thus, in the US higher education system assessment is continuous. The UK is more heavily lecture and exam based. Though in many cases they do have a mixture of assignments, discussions and presentations. The big final exam is a much larger and significant portion of the grade. In same cases, the entire grade is based on the final.

uk vs us education system


In terms of work opportunities, in the UK you are able to work off campus part-time for 20 hours a week during school days and full time during holidays. However, in the USA , students are limited to working primarily on campus in places like the student center, bookstore or cafeteria. To work off campus students need to apply for a Curricular Practical Training (CPT). The job or internship needs to be directly related to your major.

After graduation, US students often have a slightly easier chance of getting a job because of Optional Practical Training (OPT). Under OPT status, students are granted the privilege to work in the US for a year. Students in STEM fields such as Engineering however are granted the opportunity to extend their OPT status by another 3 years. Currently, students have three months to find employment. If they wish to stay longer they need to apply for the highly competitive H1B Visa where it needs to be shown that the position is one that cannot be easily fulfilled by an American worker.

In the UK, students must find a job Tier 2 sponsor licence within four months of completing their course. The job requires a salary at least £20,800. The visa can be granted for up to 5 years and will depend on the length of appointment. It’s important to note that many parents and students assume that students will easily gain employment and stay in overseas. In truth, the job market is highly competitive market in both countries.

us vs uk education system

Other Things To Consider

There are also a much higher number of universities in America compared to the UK. This is obviously due to it’s very large geographic size but it also means prospective students have a more diverse selection to choose from. You can choose to study in snowy Minnesota or sunny California. The cultural norms also differ widely from region to region, there is a large divide between Northern and Southern states. While the UK is definitely not homogeneous, a large divide also exist between rural and urban areas, it is arguably less varied weather and culture wise.

US universities also have a more hardcore ‘school spirit.’ Sports is an integral part of most universities’ identity. Athletic events and sports games are massive events attended by thousands of fans both in and outside the schools. If students are interested in on campus housing, the two countries differ as well. In the UK, students live in student halls where they have their own bathrooms but shared kitchen and bathrooms. US students on the other hand have to share their rooms with another students but have their own bathrooms in their dorms.

UK vs US Education System

For a more thorough examination on the overall education systems of the UK and US including primary and secondary school, read our Education Around The World Series. Also check out all the official UK branch campuses that you can study right here in Malaysia on our university page.

(2) Comments

  1. thank you very nice website article

  2. Andy

    I appreciate the effort, but the information makes it appear as though you have limited knowledge of the US higher education system. It’s possible the UK information is 100% accurate, but the US side of your assessment does not accurately reflect the US educational system.

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